IF YOU want greater insight into South African voting patterns, look no further than Brazil. On Sunday incumbent Dilma Rousseff beat challenger Aécio Neves in a fiercely fought presidential run-off.

Though the election was the closest in recent history, what made Rousseff’s victory particularly surprising was that she managed it despite a rapidly deteriorating economic position and increasingly poor outlook.

When Rousseff came to power in 2010, she seemed to have the world at her feet: as the protégé of the sainted former president Ignacio Lula da Silva and the first female president of the country, she presided over a staggering 7.5% growth rate in her first year. It was also announced that Brazil would host the World Cup in 2014, which was no small victory for the football-crazy nation.

Fast forward to 2014 and the economy — and, one might think, Rousseff and her party — appeared to be in serious trouble. In the first half of the year, Standard and Poor’s downgraded Brazil’s investment rating to one notch above junk, and after two consecutive quarters of negative growth the Brazilian economy finally fell into a technical recession.

Government corruption is rife, corporate taxes are too high and complicated, and, despite spending billions on World Cup stadiums, the infrastructure is insufficient. To make matters worse, the International Monetary Fund predicts that Brazil will be one of the slowest-growing developing economies this year and next. The World Bank says Brazil’s labour costs and the cost of doing business are too high relative to its productivity.

While it would be deeply unfair to blame Rousseff for all the ills that have befallen the economy, there is no question that the economic policies she has presided over have contributed to the magnitude of the country’s economic woes. Indeed, many investors blame her unorthodox policies for tipping Brazil’s economy into recession.

During the good years, Rousseff filled the pockets of civil servants and invested in vanity infrastructure projects that yielded little in increased productivity. The result is a bloated public sector and a desperate need for fiscal adjustment and reform to cut the public service. She has done none of this.

Since her accession to power in 2010 her government has also become increasingly unpopular with investors, who have decried a series of highly questionable government interventions — including instituting price controls on fuel distributed by state-owned petroleum company Petrobras in a bid to curb inflation.

This unpopularity was clear to see in market volatility in the run-up to the election, where the Bovespa index surged on news that Neves was ahead in the polls and plunged when Rousseff retook the lead.

I have no doubt that just as Rousseff almost became a victim of her own party’s success in Brazil as the middle class grew and became the donors rather than the beneficiaries of the government’s vast redistribution programme, the ANC will face the same problem before long. It is already happening in Gauteng and the Western Cape, where opposition parties are gaining ground.

In light of the recent poor growth and heavy-handed economic policies under Rousseff it is not surprising that her biggest opponent has been the pro-business Neves. When looked at through the objective lens of economic indicators, the extent of Brazil’s economic decline is obvious. But doing so ignores the real economic indicators on the ground. Over the past two decades, Brazil has made massive strides in improving the lives of the poor. Between 2009 and 2011, the incomes of the poorest 10% of Brazilians rose 29%, while the national average rose 8%.

This improvement can to a large extent be attributed to Lula da Silva, who introduced far-reaching pro-poor income redistribution policies during his second term, from 2007 to 2010. It is this legacy that Rousseff is trading on.

This is clear to see in the patterns of voting in the most recent election. In the north and north-east, where the population is poorer and consequently more likely to be beneficiaries of the state’s social programmes, Rousseff was hugely dominant.

In comparison, much of the comparatively wealthier southern parts of the country were taken by the pro-business Neves. In São Paulo, the home of the Bovespa and a third of its economy, Neves’ Brazilian Social Democracy Party won by 64% to 36%.

In this regard, Rousseff and the Workers Party have to some extent become victims of their own success. Brazil’s rapid economic growth — in large part the result of heavily redistributive policies like the Bolsa Familia — fuelled a rapid growth in the middle class. Perversely, it is now this middle class that is most outspoken about the economically foolish and damaging policies introduced by Rousseff.

Just as has been the case in SA, Brazilian politicians have blamed global economic circumstances for the change in their fortunes. Brazil was hard hit by the so-called taper tantrum, with the real having lost 20% of its value since May last year. These foreign exchange woes were exacerbated by lacklustre growth in China and a resultant drop-off in demand for commodities.

The one significant difference between Brazil and SA has been Brazil’s ability to maintain a low jobless rate, despite the downturn. Increasing education levels over the past two decades have meant more and more young Brazilians are choosing to study rather than join the ranks of the unemployed.

Another consequence of Brazil’s earlier period of rapid growth is that businesses are reluctant to retrench their skilled workers. On the face of it, these are rather nice problems to have, but the situation isn’t sustainable unless the economy picks up soon.

With Brazil as the template, it should be clear why the ANC continues to enjoy strong support at the polls in SA. A significant proportion of the electorate has gained access to clean water, a home to live in, and schools for their children, for the first time since the advent of democracy, and the ANC is quite rightly given much of the credit.

I have no doubt that just as Rousseff almost became a victim of her own party’s success in Brazil as the middle class grew and became the donors rather than the beneficiaries of the government’s vast redistribution programme, the ANC will face the same problem before long. It is already happening in Gauteng and the Western Cape, where opposition parties are gaining ground.

Still, it will be some time before black voters forget just how much the ANC has done for them.

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